Wisconsin Supreme Court Says Governments Can’t Force Religious School Closures Amid Pandemic

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On Friday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state’s health department has no constitutional right to force private and parochial schools to close amid health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 4-3 decision determined that Public Health Madison & Dane County infringed on the constitutional rights of the county’s citizens when issuing a health order which sought to ban all in-person learning for grades 3-12, The Christian Post reports.

Justice Rebecca Bradley, writing for the majority, said that while local health departments are legally permitted to take steps to respond to a health emergency like the pandemic, this “cannot be reasonably read as an open-ended grant of authority.”

The ruling determined that the petitioners who challenged Dane County’s health order “have substantial interests in advancing childhood education and providing students a stable and effective learning environment,” and that they “went to great lengths — and expended non-negligible sums — to provide students, teachers, and staff the ability to resume in-person instruction with safety precautions in place.”

Further, the majority ruled that the framers of Wisconsin’s “chose to describe the religious freedoms that they should be entitled to in greater detail than were given in the federal constitution,” something which they made sure to protect using “the strongest possible language.”

“The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed…nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted,” the ruling stated.

The decision was praised by the conservative legal firm Thomas More Society, whose Executive Vice President and General Counsel Andrew Bath said that the petitioners had challenged an “illegal” health order which had been recognized by the Supreme Court in September when they put it on hold at the time.

“They have declared it both statutorily and constitutionally unlawful and have additionally affirmed that local health officers do not have the statutory authority to close schools,” he said.

The restrictions are no longer in place and the school year has already ended, but this ruling will prevent local governments in Wisconsin from being able to shut down private and religious schools in future pandemics or health emergencies.

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